04/02/2010 12:00AM

Keeneland opener runs the gamut


LEXINGTON, Ky. - They say that character is best revealed under trying circumstances, which says a lot about the smile that trainer Larry Demeritte managed to put on his face in the aftermath of the first race of the Keeneland spring meet Friday.

Demeritte had just seen Weekend Wildcat, a 2-year-old colt he trains for Mervin and Barbara McNamara, come up on the short end of a nose photo. With 100 yards to go, Weekend Wildcat appeared to have gotten the best of Wetzel after the pair had hooked up in early stretch, but Wetzel battled back along the rail to prevail in a head-bob.

"You'd rather just get flat outrun than lose like that," said Demeritte, a Keeneland-based trainer who has not won a race here since the 2003 fall meet. "That was tough."

Brutal beats aside, it was difficult for ontrack fans not to enjoy the first of 15 afternoons at this bucolic track. With high-70s temperatures mitigated by a thin cloud cover and slight breeze, conditions were perfect for breaking the cabin fever that many of the locals had endured during the winter.

"It's the scenery, the atmosphere," said Bill Campbell, a 42-year-old Lexington resident. "I probably come out four or five times a meet. I've got a friend on the mutuels line who usually throws me a tip, although I try to keep it a secret."

What is not a secret is how racing at Keeneland once again has lured many of North America's top jockeys and trainers to Kentucky for the next month. Wetzel ($6.60) was ridden by Shaun Bridgmohan, the leading rider at the recently ended Fair Grounds meet, and saddled by Steve Asmussen, the two-time defending Eclipse Award-winning trainer. The second race was won by Taqarub ($10.40), whose trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin, has some 30 horses here this spring and is one of about a dozen prominent East Coast trainers on hand.

The third winner, Flying Warrior ($16.40), was ridden by John Velazquez, while the fourth winner, Intercoastal ($5.80), was ridden by the defending Eclipse jockey, Julien Leparoux. And on it went.

The Friday feature, the Grade 3 Transylvania Stakes, was scheduled as the ninth of 10 races. It was the first of 16 stakes that will be run through a meet that ends April 23.

Meanwhile, less than midway through the program, the crowd count already had surpassed the Keeneland record for a Friday opener.

"We've already had more than 19,000 pass through the gates," Keeneland's president, Nick Nicholson, said as the fifth race neared. "In this day and age, that's remarkable. We're more than pleased."

The record for a Friday opener was 18,031, set in 2006. The record for an opening day, 21,371, was set on a Saturday in 1978.

Pleasant Prince up for Blue Grass

Pleasant Prince, the Florida Derby runner-up, has entered the picture for the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes, the Grade 1 race to be run here next Saturday, April 10. Trainer Wesley Ward said he and owner Ken Ramsey want to ensure that the colt will have a sufficient amount of graded earnings to make the 20-horse cutoff for the May 1 Kentucky Derby.

Pleasant Prince is one of about 10 3-year-olds under consideration for the Blue Grass, for which entries will be drawn Wednesday. The other probables are Aikenite, Codoy, Giant's Tomb, Interactif, Odysseus, Make Music for Me, and Paddy O'Prado, while two more, Drosselmeyer and Homeboykris, are considered possible.

Codoy had his final pre-race workout Friday, breezing five furlongs in 1:01.80 over the Polytrack. Velazquez, who has the Blue Grass mount, was aboard.